HU: This was really a challenge at first, especially with teenagers. They all had ready-to-use "put down" language. It was part of their culture. "Put downs" came easily and naturally. But they didn't have "lift up" language. In their words, it was "awkward" and "embarrassing" to "... say that affirming language stuff." It took time, patience, and some good stories (a teacher's most powerful tool) to get them to try. These HS seniors tried, and did find it awkward. I told them everything is awkward when we do it for the first time. Just like learning to drive a car. Once you get past the early awkward stage, it goes smoothly. You just have to work your way past that awkward stage. They did, and they got very good at using more affirming language. It became an important part of my teaching for the rest of my career. My #1 goal at the beginning of each school year was to create a "Caring Community" in my classroom. We did that by choosing the right words. Many of my students have told me years later that it was one of the most valuable things they learned in high school. Thank you Mom. Thank you Tim.
JB: Weren't we more polite once? Where did it go? And how much does that matter: what I mean is, isn't formality sometimes just mouthing the right words without a true feeling for how they work in fashioning connections or destroying them?
HU: There was a time when we were much more polite and respectful as a nation. I think that started sliding downhill in the '60s when the Free (read Filthy) Speech Movement got into full swing. The movie and music industries were telling us to let it all hang out verbally. And we did, especially the younger generation. But I'm really talking about something different here. It's one thing to be polite with our words (please, thank you, etc). It's another thing to be kind with our words - to say something that lifts another's spirits. These kinds of words come from the heart, not from some code of conduct.
JB: Before we go any farther, please clarify something for me. Your bio states that you got both your bachelor's and Master's degree in history. What subject were you actually teaching? If it was history, did a higher-up ever say to you, "Hal, come on now. Let's get back to the subject matter already"?
HU: I started my career as a History (mostly U.S.) and American Government teacher. After a few years, I became very interested in psychology, particularly personal development. I went back to school and got my Doctorate in Education. The emphasis was in developmental psychology. I started teaching Psychology at the high school and a series of courses in Organizational Behavior (psychology applied to the workplace) at the university. But in ALL of my classes, no matter what the subject, I started the year by creating a "Caring Community" in my classroom. I taught the academic part of each subject, no matter what it was, but I spent the first week or more creating an environment that was good for the students to learn in and for me to teach in.
Not once in my career did an administrator ever tell me to get back to the subject matter. I wasn't one of those "touchy-feely" teachers who ignored academics. I explained early to the kids and their parents that I wasn't afraid to make my students work. I also explained the difference between strict and mean. A lot of kids think they're the same thing. I let them know that I was strict (I would hold them accountable), but that I would never be mean to them. They got it. Parents and teachers can be strict and loving at the same time.
JB: I strongly agree. You've been working on this for a very long time - beyond your classrooms, you've written books and traveled literally millions of miles spreading the gospel of speech as an indicator of character. How's it going? Are you, are we, making progress?
HU: It's hard to measure the progress, especially with the adults. I've received hundreds of emails and phone calls over the years from readers of this book and some of my others who tell me that my message has had a lasting impact. Nothing is more treasured by a teacher. In my book for teachers (LESSONS FROM THE CLASSROOM: 20 THINGS GOOD TEACHERS DO) I share some specific strategies for helping kids understand the power of their words, and to use words that affirm life and other people. Many teachers and administrators have given me feedback on how much the culture of their classrooms or schools have changed for the better. But has my message reached the millions of people who most need to hear it? Sadly, no. You have to be a celebrity to get the attention of the media.Teachers will never be celebrities.
cover art for 'Positive Words, Powerful Results: Simple Ways to Honor, Affirm and Celebrate Life'
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